Irregular Heartbeat: What It Means for Your Health

| Women's Health

doctor and heart health

If you've ever been to a doctor who told you that you had an irregular heartbeat — and we're not talking about how your heart skips a beat when that hunky hero appears on screen in a movie — you may be preparing yourself for a major freak out. An irregular heartbeat, also known as arrhythmia, occurs when the heart does not beat at a steady pace; it either beats too slowly or too quickly. It can affect anyone, although people over the age of 60 experience it more frequently, and impacts the lives of nearly three million Americans every year. Luckily for you, an irregular heartbeat is not the end of the world! Some types are completely harmless, while others are easily treated. We've looked into what you should do if you believe you have an irregular heartbeat.

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Causes and Types: Just because you've discovered you have an abnormal heart rate does not necessarily mean that your heart is unhealthy. There are several causes of arrhythmia including, but not limited to:

  • Heart disease
  • The wrong balance of electrolytes in your blood
  • Premature atrial contractions, or early extra beats in the heart's upper chambers that generally do not need to be treated
  • Premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), which are one of the most common arrhythmias. They are "skipped heartbeats," and there are many causes.
  • Atrial fibrillation, or another common irregular rhythm that causes the upper chambers of the heart to contract abnormally.
  • Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT), which is a rapid heart rate that starts and ends suddenly. (via WebMD)

For more causes of irregular heartbeats, check out this link.

Symptoms: An arrhythmia can be silent, which means that the only way it can be detected is through a physical exam or an electrocardiogram (ECG). However, if you've experienced any of the following symptoms it may be time to check in with your doctor:

  • Palpitations (feeling like your heart has skipped some beats, or your heart is "fluttering")
  • Pounding in your chest
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or fatigue

Check out more symptoms of arrhythmia by visiting MedicineNet.

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woman heart pain

Diagnosis: The only way to diagnose an irregular heartbeat is to pay a visit to your doctor. There are a series of different tests that can be performed in order to determine whether you will need treatment. Here are some of the most common forms of diagnosis:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), which is where electrode patches measure the electrical activity of your heart
  • Holter moniter, which is a portable EKG that you will carry with you for 1 to 2 days
  • Stress test, which will determine how much stress your heart can withstand before suffering an irregularity. You will probably be asked to use a treadmill or stationary bike. Learn how to cope with stress here.
  • Echocardiogram, or a test that utilizes an ultrasound in order to evaluate your heart and heart valves

For more information on the tests used to diagnose heart irregularities, visit WebMD.

Treatments: If your doctor determines that treatment is necessary, there are a variety of options out there. Here are some of the choices:

  • Antiarrhythmic drugs, which are medications that will control your heart rate and include beta-blockers
  • Anticoagulant or antiplatelet therapy, which lower the risk of blood clots and strokes. Learn how to recognize stroke symptoms here.
  • Electrical cardioversion, which is an electrical shock to your chest that will allow your normal rhythm to resume
  • A pacemaker, or a device that sends small electrical impulses to the heart muscle to keep your heart rate steady
  • An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), which tracks the rhythm of your heart, and when the beating becomes irregular it delivers energy to the heart muscle

Visit the American Heart Association to learn more about the treatments of arrhythmia.

heart moniter

Even if you haven't been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, there are several things that you can do to lower your risk. It is essential that you avoid certain substances like caffeine, tobacco and alcohol. Medications that include stimulants (popular in cold and cough medications) can also increase your risk for an abnormal heart rate. Other things to avoid include appetite suppressants, psychotropic drugs, beta-blockers for high blood pressure, and street drugs like methamphetamines, cocaine or marijuana. As long as you stick to a healthy lifestyle and visit your doctor regularly, you will keep your risk of an irregular heartbeat low!

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